Tag Archives: LA Review of Books

Travel Writing for Americans Who Stay Home

Warsaw Castle Square

Tom Swick was the travel editor of a “medium sized newspaper in a small Florida city,”  an envied and somewhat trivialized position, until it wasn’t. In LARB, he considers his career and the role travel writing plays for an audience that doesn’t get much vacation — and doesn’t share his inherent curiosity about the world.

9/11 brought a temporary end to envy of my job — suddenly nobody was jealous of frequent flyers — while at the same time elevating my status. Terrorism turned travel into something vital, threatened, precious, political.

Americans eventually started traveling again, but things did not return to normal. In my local bookstore, the travel narrative section began, inexorably, to shrink. When people said to me, “Travel writer — what a great job!” I was now tempted to ask: “Really? What was the last travel book you read?” The memoir had long been in the ascendant, which was strange; if anything, 9/11 should have made us fervently, desperately curious about the world. But as a nation we seemed to be turning our gaze inward, to our childhoods, our relationships, our obsessions, our phobias, our disorders, our illnesses, our addictions. It was helpful to our understanding of human nature, which is obviously an important part of being a member of the species. But we were also citizens of the world — the most powerful at that; didn’t we have a responsibility to learn about it? Abroad, people were astonished when I told them that only about a quarter of Americans possessed a passport. And this, I imagined them thinking, is the country that’s calling the shots?

There are countries whose citizens, without ever leaving, can’t help but be exposed to the foreign; in the United States, the exposure frequently never goes beyond the table. Years ago, the Travel Channel devolved into a kind of offshoot of the Food Network, more or less proving that, here, abroad is acceptable only if served on a plate. We do not import other countries’ TV shows, with the exception of England’s, which doesn’t really count. Some of us listen to world music, but not in the numbers that NPR would like. At night you can surf through all of your movie channels and never find a foreign film. Of the books published here every year, only three percent are works in translation. It is said that one must first love oneself before one can hope to love another, but the United States seems dangerously stuck on itself. Yes, there’s France and Italy — the book publishing darlings — but they’re viewed, because they’re so often depicted, more as pleasure gardens than real countries.

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Eastern Europe: Beyond the Cold War, and Beyond the Stereotypes

Photo of the now-demolished People's Theater in Budapest, Hungary, in 1963.

The homogenizing force of globalization means that a shopping center in Budapest doesn’t look all that different from one central Turin, or York, or Cleveland. Is “Eastern Europe” as an idea disappearing? What held it together in the first place, beyond stereotypes? Try Jacob Mikanowski‘s essay in the LA Review of Books for some suggestions (and some objections).

Gone are the days of Penguin’s Writers from the Other Europe series or Susan Sontag exhorting us to read Danilo Kiš while we still had time. Since then, Eastern Europe has been reduced to a backdrop for other people’s fantasies. I know a distinguished scholar of the region, a historian who teaches a regular course on Eastern European history, who told me that every year he has to answer questions from his students about whether people actually love and laugh in this “gray place.” It’s always a bit humiliating to read an English-language book with an Eastern European character. You never know if they’re going to be a world-weary janitor (a Pole), a captivating fraud (a Hungarian), a post-Communist gangster (a Serb), or a source of erotic awakening for a literary-minded man (a Czech for Americans, any of the above for residents of Ireland and the United Kingdom).

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But What’s IT All About?: How We Forgot the Murderous Clown

Adrian Daub’s fascinating essay in the LA Review of Books on the Stephen King classic IT — now 30 years old — reveals that the real horror of IT wasn’t Pennywise the supernatural clown, but our own, entirely human ability to forget the horrors of the past.

I realize now that I can’t even remember when I finally picked up one of these errant copies of It and started reading. But perhaps that’s a strangely appropriate mode of reception for a horror novel that reserves its greatest terror for the vagaries of memory. It features relatively little of the kind of horror that has protagonists shining their flashlights into dark corners to face unseen abominations. Instead, it dwells on the horror of having lived with something terrifying all along, of having become blind and numb to it. It strikes me only now, rereading the book decades later in English, that there’s something distinctively American about the pervasive, dreamlike fog of amnesia that envelops the town of Derry, Maine, in King’s novel. Not for nothing does It make its home in the town’s sewers; as one character puts it: “Nobody knows where all the damned sewers and drains go, or why. When they work, nobody cares.”

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